Smallpox is a deadly infectious disease that has been a major cause of death in humans for centuries. 

It was declared extinct in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination program. Despite this, a mysterious discovery in 2014 turned out to be a shocking reminder of the disease’s existence. In July 2014, smallpox vials were discovered in an abandoned storage space at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

History of Smallpox

Smallpox is an ancient disease that dates back to the Egyptian times and is believed to have plagued humans for at least 10,000 years. While there is no evidence of smallpox existing in Europe prior to the Middle Ages, it spread rapidly thereafter and is estimated to have killed 300 million people during the 20th century alone. There have been two major outbreaks of the disease: the First Pandemic and the Second Pandemic. The First Pandemic began in the 16th century and lasted until the 19th century. The Second Pandemic started in the 19th century and is thought to have been started by the British colonizers sending blankets infected with smallpox to Native American during the French and Indian war.

The Smallpox Vaccine 

In 1796, the first smallpox vaccine was created by the British doctor Edward Jenner. He noticed a country girl who had a mild case of cowpox, a disease related to smallpox, and so he decided to test his theory. He infected the girl with smallpox and she did not get the disease. Jenner’s revolutionary discovery marked the start of the global effort to eradicate smallpox. In 1967, the World Health Organization began a massive effort which used both education and vaccination to eliminate smallpox from the world. The campaign was declared successful in 1980 after it was reported that the worldwide incidence of the disease had decreased by 99.99%.

Significance of the Smallpox Vials

The discovery of the smallpox vials in 2014 was an unexpected reminder of the looming threat of the disease. The vials had been stored in the same spot since the 1950s, untouched and forgotten until their discovery. The vials were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and tested positive for the smallpox virus. This sparked fear amongst the public, as the virus in the vials had been dormant for over 50 years and a potential source of infection if released. The vials were moved to the CDC’s highest-level containment laboratory where they are being studied and stored.

Symptoms of Smallpox 

Smallpox is caused by an infection of the variola virus and has a mortality rate of around 30%. Its early symptoms include fever, fatigue, and headache. After 1-2 days, the telltale signs of smallpox appear as a rash. The rash first appears on the face and spreads over the body, and eventually develops into pus-filled blisters. The virus spreads easily through droplets in the air, through contact with an infected person or contaminated items.


There is currently no effective treatment for smallpox and the only way to prevent its spread is by vaccination. The CDC recommends that adults born after 1972 receive at least one dose of the smallpox vaccine to protect themselves against the disease. The vaccine is not recommended for people who are pregnant, have a weakened immune system and/or have eczema. For those who have been exposed to smallpox, a preventive drug called cidofovir can be given to protect against infection if taken within 5 days of being exposed.

Smallpox is a devastating disease that has been wiped out of existence after a global effort to eradicate it in the mid 20th century. However, the discovery of a cache of smallpox vials in 2014 is a stark reminder of the danger posed by the virus if it were to be released in the world today. While the vials have been safely removed and stored, it is important to remain vigilant and to emphasize the importance of vaccinating against the disease.